SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The US Army's top officer believes the Pentagon's engagement with the commercial tech community should continue, a major endorsement as the Pentagon prepares to transition to the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff, said he recently visited the headquarters of the Defense United Innovation Experimental (DIUx) initiative and would support continuing the work of the group, which started in 2015.
"I think it's a very good idea, it should be sustained and it's a good initiative there, because we need to accentuate and accelerate innovation for the application of commercial products out there for the military," Milley said while appearing at the Reagan National Defense Forum on Dec. 3. "There's no question in my mind."
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DIUx has been a pet program of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and there has been a sense that the group may be done away with at the end of Carter's term. Those fears increased earlier this year when Carter relaunched the group as DIUx 2.0 and made them a direct report to his office. Analysts warned that move was a gamble, which could give DIUx cover to prove its worth but also set up the unit for collapse should a non-tech-focused secretary come into power.
However, the move seems to have paid off, with the group having awarded 12 contracts worth roughly $36 million, in fiscal 2016, with $8.3 million of that funding coming from the DIUx office and the rest from co-investment; there are another 15 contracts in the works, as well. That work has apparently built up internal support from leaders like Milley, who also urged patience with the unit.
"Candidly, it's a bit early in terms of tangible benefits. They haven't been stood up very long. This isn't the kind of stuff you sprinkle the magic dust on and get magic solutions. These guys haven't been in operation for all that long," Milley said. "I think it's a very good idea. I think there are some tweaks to it. I've provided some of that feedback back to the Department of Defense ... let's give it a little bit of space here, let's give them some running room."
Speaking to Defense News at November’s CyberCon event, DIUx head Raj Shah made the case for why his office should continue to report directly to the next secretary of defense.
"Whenever you’re doing something new, particularly in a very large organization, that creates disruptions and challenges for lots of folks. And having the freedom of maneuver to try new things, take new approaches, has been critical to our success," Shah said then. "So I would encourage the next administration to continue to enable not just us — we are one of several innovation efforts the department has done — encouraging that level of new thinking is valuable for all of us."
DIUx has outposts in Silicon Valley, Boston, Massachusetts, and Austin, Texas. The group also intends to grow its use of the reserve forces throughout the nation.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.